Hearthstone is nothing short of a juggernaut these days. The game hit 70 million players as of May 1, and is currently enjoying one of the most diverse metas in its history, thanks to a new Standard rotation (where certain older sets are no longer playable in the main game mode) and the most recent expansion, Journey to Un’Goro.
Hearthstone’s esports scene is obviously a huge part of that picture too, and has grown in leaps and bounds since the early days. 2017 in particular has seen the Hearthstone Championship Tour (HCT) really find its feet and Blizzard has actively started up a number of other interesting programs.
Che Chou is the man responsible for leading Hearthstone esports now, having joined Blizzard late last year after ten years at Xbox and eight years in games journalism before that. I caught up with him in Shanghai during the HCT Spring Championship to find out about where this side of Hearthstone is headed.
IGN: Tell me a little about your background and what’s it been like coming into Blizzard and working with the Hearthstone team.
Che Chou: After working in the press, I spent ten years at Microsoft. I jumped the fence in 2006, and... went into managing the Forza community. I did that for four years, and then went to Halo, and did that for six years. It was at Halo that my passion for esports lit up, because Halo’s had a pretty storied history in esports and when I was there I revived the program, officially, from the publisher perspective. And so I ran their esports program and… basically started to understand the psychology of the athlete and esports.
And it just so happened at the time, it was around 2015, Hearthstone comes out and somebody on my Halo esports team actually introduced it to me – oh, you might like this game. I’m like – yeah, but I didn’t play World of Warcraft. They’re like – no, no, it’s cool, trust me. So I get instantly hooked and spend a year playing Hearthstone while I was on the road doing my other esports job, and then, last year at some point I was just like – you know what? I love esports, Blizzard is doing cool things with HCT – last year was the first year that HCT was formally given shape, so I watched a tonne of HCT last year - and I just thought, if there’s an opportunity to go and help Blizzard shape this thing and make it bigger and better, I would love to do that. So here I am, I landed the dream job! I’m loving it! Blizzard is a super unique company in that it’s a big company but it doesn’t feel like a big company in a lot of ways, especially coming from a company like Microsoft or Xbox…
IGN: What was your mandate coming in? Where do you see the next couple of years going for Hearthstone in terms of esports?
Che Chou: Obviously one of the items on the agenda is just to continue to refine and polish and learn. Last year was an important formative year, and this year we’re trying a lot of things, we’ve expanded the portfolio. HCT became a tour – we’re going to all these different destinations, we developed HGG [Hearthstone Global Games] to scratch the itch of team Hearthstone, as well as explore the concept of a nation wars theme with Hearthstone.
We are doing the collegiate program, and that, actually, is super fun and important. In April we ran a really cool collegiate championship, it was one of the first events where we treated the entire Hearthstone esports event like it was a social gathering, as opposed to a strictly Hearthstone viewership experience. You don’t just sit there and watch, it was like long tables at a tavern, and people were eating and drinking and watching and socialising, that’s the Hearthstone vibe we want...
I would love Hearthstone esports events and championships to be a cultural touchstone for gamers. When we have a Worlds event I want people who don’t even play Hearthstone to be like – what happened? Who won?
We did our first Wild tournament, with the Wild Open, so this is the year of experimentation. This is the year where we’re doing a tonne and we’re learning a tonne, and I think in the years to come it’s about refining, but it’s also about storytelling. I think one of the biggest changes we did this year was we’re partnering with a new production company to really level up how we’re telling the stories of our athletes, and how we are honouring their skill and honouring the challenges they had to come through to get here.
So yeah, when you ask me – what’s in store for Hearthstone? – I think it really is to continue to invest in how we create the narratives of our esport, how we continue to put on more epic experiences for our fans and our viewers at events like Shanghai, and then also, how we create programs that hit on the different demographics of our audience too. Standard and HCT, some people like it, some people prefer Wild … we want a diverse portfolio to hit on the different demographics, we want to continue to level up our storytelling, we also want to create epic experiences.
For me, my ultimate goal, I would love Hearthstone esports events and championships to be a cultural touchstone for gamers. When we have a Worlds event I want people who don’t even play Hearthstone to be like – what happened? Who won? How did they win? Who’s this guy?
A great example of telling a player's story.
IGN: The storytelling is super important. If you look at traditional sports so much of it is the off-the-pitch narrative. In terms of the players – and this applies to a lot of esports - a lot of these competitors are quite young and can be quite introverted. Hearthstone is also a game where there’s a lot of thinking - you methodically go through all the things you could potentially do or play around in your head. There’s not a lot of overt personality on display. How do you get around that?
Che Chou: First of all, I certainly encourage our players to be more colourful on stage if they want to be, but we don’t want to force anyone to be who they’re not, so depending on who they are, we try to do our best externally – in media pieces or in biopics or whatever – to paint a picture of who they are. We try to showcase them in ways that they would not normally present themselves, because all 16 of these guys [at Shanghai] have awesome stories, and we want to tell those stories.
I think it’s our responsibility to honour these players. They’ve worked hard to get here and we want to showcase who they are.
So… do I wish I had outrageous moments on stage? Sure, and we may get that to come, but at the same time, it is who these guys are today and a lot of these guys, particularly because of how Hearthstone esports is structured, for HCT for instance, a lot of these guys are not your typical… salaried pro players who live in that pro ecosystem. These are amateurs who have worked really hard and trained really hard and have gotten to where they are because of their skill, and now they’re on the world stage, I think for many of them, for the first time. I think it’s our job to help them to level up and to present their stories.
It’s a little bit like the Olympics. [Out of] hundreds of athletes, you only have a handful of superstars come out of the Olympics, but all the athletes at their core, train super hard and they’ve all got that competitive drive. And what I love about the Olympics is, before an event or a match or whatever, I’ll go in and I’ll be like – I don’t know who this person is – but you watch a three minute documentary on whoever and you come out of it and now you suddenly really care about what is about to happen to them. It’s like - okay, wow, they went through some crazy challenges to get here – and now this person is about to run, or whatever, and now I’m rooting for them. So I think it’s our responsibility to honour these players. They’ve worked hard to get here and we want to showcase who they are.
IGN: The casters also bring a lot of personality to the broadcasts too. In terms of those guys, it’s been cool to see the evolution of casting in Hearthstone – the casters have been honing their skills and style too, and we have duos forming, etc. How are you feeling about the current roster?
Che Chou: First of all, I would say that for Hearthstone we’re quite fortunate to have these casters. I think all of them came from the player community, I think they’re all legend players… I know even in the early days I was reading Sottle’s strategy guides on, like, Icy Veins, or whatever. They’re all good players and we’ve lucked out that they also happen to be great presenters and speakers, so we’re very fortunate as an esport. But at the same time, something I’m finding out now, is the more we do – we have all these different programs – we also need to deepen our talent pool. We don’t have enough. Right now these guys are working a lot. They’re flying around the world doing lots and lots of shows. I actually want to grow the number of casters we have. But not just that, I also want to invest in the current casters we have, I want to continue to level them up and make them better at what they do, and more polished, more professional, etc. So that is a priority for me and it’s a commitment I want to make for the future of Hearthstone.
IGN: That makes sense. The current roster seems to do some pretty serious shifts.
Che Chou: Yeah, especially if you think about our play-off system, which is – we have three different weekends right now for play-offs. It’s Europe, Asia-Pacific, Americas. Play-offs is crazy, because they’re regional play-offs and within each region it’s a distributed tournament system so we play rounds of Swiss and it’s across, like, 25 different locations in that region. And they play each other across these different venues, then we pull a spectator feed from each location as well as a player cam, and then all that feeds back into our central studio in Los Angeles, where the casters are now speaking. And because the broadcast production is based in the U.S. when we do Europe or we do Asia-Pacific, these casters have to take some truly gruelling hours, where it’s like – hey, broadcast starts at 1am and it’ll go all night! So yes, these guys work very hard. We’re very fortunate.
IGN: Touching on the presentational aspect of Hearthstone as an esport, I’m surprised that there isn’t more information or metrics being displayed on screen. For instance, percentage chance to draw an out on a turn, or the casters knowing what the top card in each deck is, or something like that. Is that something that you’d like to see more of?
Che Chou: The answer is yes. For instance, your first example, percentage of an out, yeah, I mean, definitely. Those are ideas that we’ve had. It’s something I want to do, but some of it is right now limited by our bandwidth to do it, because it just requires technology to develop, so there’s no actual philosophical reason why we’re not doing it. In fact, I would love to do it and we may potentially do it in the near future.
Some of it is also – I mean, there are some things we want to do, then there’s also the temptation to throw in the kitchen sink of everything and I think a lot of what defines Hearthstone is also its simplicity, the ease of understanding the flow of the action, and I think what also makes Hearthstone such a widely viewed game online is that it is easy to watch. So we want to walk that line. Sometimes less is more, sometimes more is more.
IGN: There’s clearly a lot happening in terms of tournament play this year, but do you think that to foster the next generation of tournament players you need to implement tournament support in the client? Like, a best of three or five format? There’s probably a lot of players that are pretty intimidated by open tournaments and that kind of thing, but would maybe like to experience that side of the game. Is that something you’re pushing to have?
Che Chou: Those are all ideas that we, from time to time, sit down with the Hearthstone team and discuss. Right now there’s nothing committed, there’s nothing to announce, but those are definitely things we’re looking into.
IGN: Last question. A game like StarCraft has had amazing longevity in its competitive scene. What kind of legs does Hearthstone have? Where would you like to see it in ten years?
You just have this incredible amount of strategic content that can be had, so in my opinion, with Hearthstone esports we’re just getting started.
Che Chou: That’s a great question. This year is a transitional year, but we’ve started to align our seasons more to the expansion releases, so that – what we’re seeing right now is that towards the end of a season of Hearthstone esports what you’re getting is the… highest level play of that meta possible for that current expansion. I would say that right now, the Un’Goro decks here [at Shanghai] are probably the most refined versions of those decks. And that’s pretty cool to see. And then a new expansion drops, there’s this scramble in the new meta to find that min-max best deck…
Because we have the three expansions each year and Hearthstone’s continually being refreshed, that to me, my gut tells me that that element of Hearthstone will make the game very interesting for a very long time. Then you add on Wild, which is all the cards ever released and the meta changes every season as well. You just have this incredible amount of strategic content that can be had, so in my opinion, with Hearthstone esports we’re just getting started. This is a year of experimentation for us and we’re going to continue to grow things and refine things, but yeah, I think Hearthstone’s got legs.
Cam Shea is senior editor in IGN's Sydney office, and recently published a Knights of the Frozen Throne interview . He's on Twitter.